By Stephen Merrill, Edutopia, September 11, 2020
Some of the first adorable patients to trickle into Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’s pediatric clinic when it opened in 2007—long before she was named the first surgeon general of California—were referred by teachers and principals.
Sitting in her examination rooms back then, in one of San Francisco’s poorest neighborhoods, Burke Harris knew almost immediately that something was amiss. Her young patients arrived with tentative diagnoses of oppositional defiant disorder or learning deficits, but routine exams uncovered a host of more serious physical ailments: asthma, autoimmune hepatitis, and even growth failure. Almost inevitably, the children’s caretakers—also sick with advanced diabetes, heart disease, or cancer—relayed harrowing stories of family incarceration, sexual abuse, and even murder.
“I’d have this snapshot of multigenerational adversity in one room,” Burke Harris said, still looking worried decades later. How did the pieces fit together? What did a learning problem have to do with asthma, or with exposure to trauma? Could any of it be connected to terminal conditions like cancer?